A New Animatronics Program for a New Generation

Over the years, we have gained a lot of experience doing animatronics programs with schools, museums, etc. When we started back in 2006, we mostly thought of it as an alternative to traditional, extracurricular school robotics programs. Instead of making robots to fight in some competition, we would make robots to put on a show. The early shows were quite elaborate. We handcrafted custom aluminum frame robot skeletons and placed them in high-end puppets. These would typically be mounted in complex sets, where multiple characters interacted. In some cases we added synchronized lighting and video projection. The efforts to build these were fairly intense, usually involving a team of students working for 20 to 60 hours over the course of days, weeks or even months.

Building these sorts of shows involves a lot of skill. While we have been very effective at teaching kids how to build shows in well-supervised environments, we have found that there are often subtle, unanticipated technical issues that arise that are difficult for teachers to resolve in real-time classes. Much of our recent work has been in reimaging animatronics in a more accessible form that maintains the key elements of a physically animated show. We have been exploring Paper Animatronics, where the characters are created through papercraft – something that works particularly well for the younger grades.

We have also come to appreciate that animatronics doesn’t have to be a separate activity – that it integrates well into regular classroom curricula. Abbie Cornelius has been running an animatronics-based 7th grade history project at Trinity Valley School in Fort Worth, TX for a number of years now. In this activity, students select historical figures and bring them to life. These activities not only build storytelling, performance and technical skills, they also very effectively excite kids about learning history. In a sense, animatronics is just another project option for learning a subject – like making a shoebox diorama, a video, or writing a report. Our new animatronics programs are specifically designed not as a separate, detached activities, but as a tool for delivering traditional curricula. As a part of classroom experiential learning, we hope many more students will come to see how technical skills integrate with other creative disciplines.